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Are Generalists Healthier than Specialists?

movement Apr 13, 2018

When it comes to wellness, movement, nutrition and the entire spectrum of holistic health, evolution isn’t simply a useful story to take into account, it’s actually the only context that really does make sense. We followed natural ways (a nomadic, hunter gatherer lifestyle) for millions of years, yet our “civilized” ways have only been in existence for roughly 10,000 years. Our modern lifestyle does not resemble the bulk of our existence. How we lived for millions of years is hard-wired in our biology and subconscious.

The result? We are trying to mimic our primal nature in many ways; hence the fitness industry (the disappearance of our nomadic lifestyle), the health and nutrition industry (we used to eat real food from the land), people feeling alive in nature (we used to live in connection with the Earth), television (remembering community and stories around the fire), dance clubs (we used to express ourselves through tribal dance and combat), etc.

Natural movement (primal movement) has been a tremendous influence and part of my own life. I was fortunate enough to grow up at the end of a dirt road surrounded by nature. We also had an off grid cottage on an island which we lived in during summers. I spent my childhood climbing trees, exploring forests, swimming, trapping animals and throwing sticks and stones. I also had my competitive athlete and gym rat days – mainly because I loved movement and how it made me feel. I loved the variety of classes, the machines, the people. Throughout the years I slowly began to adapt my movement and mindfulness practices within the context of biology, evolution, culture and ecology, and mainly on what just feels good to me. Movement has become part of my entire day as opposed to a separated segment of my day.

In life, I tend to think of myself as a generalist. I am passionate about living a life out of the box, which is just naturally who I am. I’ve wandered and learnt about all sorts of areas that question the conventional paradigm, from holistic nutrition and natural movement to off grid living and homesteading and un-schooling my children to traveling the unbeaten path and exploring earth based spirituality. I thrive on living an empowered well rounded life, and a life of freedom.

Freedom is also how I’d describe the type of movement I practice. I move freely and in various ways, in the outdoors, in the water, at playgrounds and using different objects and surfaces in my home, including my children as weights. An un-schooling mother-entrepreneur of two has to be resourceful. It’s just a bonus that the kids love to play and move! I am a movement generalist as opposed to a movement specialist – terms often used by those in the movement world.

As a lifelong student myself, I recently shared the start of my new journey in Primal Movement Training with Primal VinyasaAnnie Adamson, embodied movement goddess extraordinaire and founder of the fast growing method which fuses primal movement and yoga, talks a lot about how repetition of movement (even yoga) can damage our body. In her work with Primal Vinyasa she incorporates corrective exercise to ensure you are practicing your movements in proper alignment. It is important that you correct any misalignment you may have caused yourself during those years of sitting at school or a desk job, commuting to work or improper and repetitive movement. It’s all about how our nervous system regulates our muscle tissue which transmits a force to our connective tissue. Muscle fibers literally embed into connective tissue. We can move freely, but first we must get back into proper alignment.

Now, with the fast growing fitness industry, trends are popular and people get caught up in movement patterns that can be very repetitive. Brands lead the fitness industry with false promises of exceptional figure and health, without taking into account how our body is wired to move. The number one cause of injury is due to repetition, and the second one is due to ‘sedentarism’ (not moving). These can also lead to personal weakening because of lack of strength, creativity and resilience that movement diversity gives you, not to mention chronic pain and disease.

There’s a movement system within us, that was built in and that our body craves. It doesn’t result in resistance and shut down. The code is already hidden deep within the molecular structure of our human body – our primal memory. We just need to remember and reawaken it. Finally something refreshing that makes sense, the fitness trend of natural movement (which includes Primal Vinyasa and other primal movement methods) takes the emphasis back to the very thing that we are best at doing: being human. “Movement” is really just the brand of the “unbranded”. We can’t truly call it a brand if it always existed – it’s just what humans are supposed to do.

We now know we must move. There is no doubt that moving is good for our mental, physical and spiritual health. But how much should we specialize in one kind of movement? As humans, we evolved to move, all day long, in many different ways. Now, we move only in certain, specific ways. We strive for growth and gains without developing the actual balance, strength, and coordination necessary to achieve them. Strength, agility, endurance, and skill have been part of human life for millennia because it was crucial for survival. In nature, the best movers won!

Our biology indicates that we should opt to be movement generalists, not specialists. That said, there is no shame in specializing. When we specialize, we become masters of our skill. However, this mastery can come with physical imbalances and problems in the long run. Also, for real-world preparedness, specializing can lead to failure. If you’re a runner that can’t lift a heavy object that falls on your spouse, or a heavy lifter that can’t swim to rescue your child who’s fallen in the water, how functional is that?

Many don’t even move at all. For those people, any movement is better than no movement. But those elite athletes are the perfect example of specialization that may have gone too far. They specialize in a specific sport or discipline, but are they the healthiest movers? By repeating the same motion, we stress our body, and in chronic stress, the motion is eventually rejected. As human animals, we were successful because we mastered a whole range of movement from crawling, walking and running to swimming, climbing and jumping. This large variety of movement made us the extremely adaptive and resilient species that we are today. Specialization in sport and in life is a domestication process. It weakens our species. Just like the poodle who is a descendent of the wolf. Still the same animal, but much weaker and domesticated. We are disconnected from our true nature and the beautiful human animals we are.

Through science and research, we’ve also come to realize that even the specialists (elite athletes) perform better when they generalize (un-specialize) in their training modalities. The best in the performance industry are seeing that cross training leads to full potential. A broader movement foundation has helped athletes avoid stress injury over years of performing repetitive movement in one sport. More so now, with many child athletes specialization from a very young age. They are even more susceptible to joint deterioration and stress injuries. Children are meant to play and flow freely, without stiffening joints and limiting movement.

Children and adults alike require movement complexity in daily life. In simple terms, movement complexity refers to our body in all sorts of complex and challenging ways. Some movement disciplines demonstrate this beautifully, such as dancing, parkour, MMA fighters, gymnastics, etc. On the other end of the spectrum, there are also movement disciplines that lack a great amount of movement complexity like cycling, powerlifting, rowing, etc. This doesn’t mean that these disciplines lack complexity in their technique or that they don’t require a high degree of skill, but considering these sports in movement perspective, there isn’t much movement diversity happening.

If you consider the average dweller in the Western world, we get up, sit to have breakfast, get into our car, sit to commute, get to work, sit in front of a screen, take a break for lunch, sit to eat, then get into our car, sit to commute, arrive home and cook dinner (or order in), sit to eat, sit in front of a screen (television, computer or phone) and then go to bed only to repeat it all the next day. If we’re one of the “fit” ones, we may stick a 30-90 minute workout somewhere in there. That is great, and very necessary. But regardless, that is just too much sitting! Not to mention close to no movement complexity. You don’t move enough! You sit all day in a horrible position, and then go exercise and compact it down more, on the same vertical and horizontal planes of motion repeating the same basic movement patterns on machines that lock your joints into place, or hard flat surfaces. Lower back pain? Stiff joints? Tight shoulders? Bad knees? Poor breathing? Hmmm. The illusion of fitness without actually enhancing functional performance is much too common. Fitness can be added to dysfunction, without a doubt, but what is the greater purpose?

Just like specialization, ‘sedentarism’ also lacks movement complexity, and movement all together! Being sedentary didn’t exist in our ancestry. We moved so much more. We had to move to find our food, build shelters and get from place to place. We were nomadic. When there is no movement, the body is not flowing. And just like everything in nature, when there is stillness, or something is not moving, there is stagnation. When things are stagnant, they are lifeless. If you must sit, change positions every few minutes, or get up and take a walk every ten minutes. Fill many little spaces in your day with as much movement diversity as you can. Our joints were not intended to be locked and compressed for large amounts of time.

By all means, continue enjoying the activities you do love, but add more variety. Continue powerlifting, but go swimming as well. Kayak on the lake. Take some dance lessons. Practice yoga. Hike in wilderness. Play ball. Sit on the floor instead of a chair. Be creative in your movement. Just add more movement. You will feel the positive change your body was dying for on so many levels: a cellular level, a physical level, a cognitive level, an emotional level. This is where the true benefit of natural movement is found. If you practice consistently and mindfully, you will be a true movement generalist – a holistically fit human being. And yes, as a bonus you will get into shape and feel and look great!

Being a movement generalist will empower and open your eyes to the world around you. With a healthy fit body, you can do anything your heart desires. You will come to realize that the freedom to move outweighs just looking good. You will perceive the world in a completely different manner – in every forest you will see a playground, in every playground you will see a gym, your children’s playtime will become an opportunity to move, going through your daily life will give you many opportunities for movement complexity. You will feel inspired to lift and carry heavy objects, take the stairs instead of the elevator and try all sorts of new movement modalities and outdoor activities. You’ll want to take your shoes off, strengthen those little muscles in your toes and feet and connect to the Earth – and it will help everything work further up the chain.

Reconnect with nature and develop your aliveness in movement to become more resilient, embodied human being. Practicing natural movement is for anyone who owns a human body.


Photo Credit: Natalie Gildersleeve


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